Strengthening Relationships, Strengthening Economic Development
Economic development efforts often focus on finding ways to attract new businesses and sectors to our communities. We want to be a great place to start a business, to help our local economy expand and diversify. Like our partners in business, we can end up spending much of our time and energy trying to engage new “customers” with our service offerings and marketing efforts.
Yet it’s often more profitable for businesses to spend their resources on retaining existing customers instead of trying to attract new ones. Rather than offering discounts and upgrades to pull in ever-more people, they work to build a connection, even a relationship, with the people who have already bought in. They may seek feedback on what services or products their existing customers need and find out what’s working (or not) to keep them invested in the company.
Could the same idea apply to economic development? After all, businesses and communities are interdependent, so a relationship of sorts already exists. What can communities do to strengthen the connection with local business and industry so everyone can grow together?
For the last several years, the City of Lloydminster has been working to strengthen economic development, with business retention and expansion a pillar of their 2018-2021 economic development strategic plan. Council’s support for both engagement and economic development led to creating a position in 2021 specifically to keep businesses and the city connected.
A lot of groundwork was done before the Business Retention Specialist role even existed, however. “In 2020, we phoned over 900 businesses when COVID hit,” says Katlin Ducherer, Business Retention Specialist with the City of Lloydminster. “We were building an inventory of businesses and licensing information. Making all those individual calls was time consuming and extra City of Lloydminster team members were pulled in to assist, but we got it done so we could contact those businesses and relay information throughout the pandemic.”
Focused on customer service and making sure businesses can quickly and easily get the answers they need, Ducherer and the rest of the team are now in regular contact with over 1,800 businesses. “We’re the boots on the ground, speaking to businesses,” says Ducherer.
Questions and complications abound in economic development, whether you’re dealing with new or established businesses, so Ducherer wants to show the value the department brings to the city.
“I think it’s really important to talk to the ‘why’ of business licensing,” she says. “It’s not just so you’re legislatively covered; the team makes this community a better place to do business.”
Engaging with businesses and building stronger relationships can mean everything from connecting them with service providers and funding options to helping them find space for a business and helping customers find them—the Think Lloyd First marketing campaign, highlighting the importance of procuring and buying local, was a winner in the 2021 SEDA Awards of Excellence. It sometimes means working with and advocating to other orders of government, especially in a city that deals with all the complications of spanning two provinces and dealing with the differing (and sometimes conflicting) rules.
Much of the team’s work has been responding to questions and reacting to changes around them, but the team is working on becoming more proactive. That includes annual business climate surveys to help council and administration understand what’s happening, what’s going well, and what else could be done to support existing businesses. The 2021 survey showed higher satisfaction with the City from businesses, and negative attitudes toward doing business in Lloydminster was its lowest since the survey began in 2019.
Even with the struggles businesses have faced in recent years, Ducherer describes economic development in the city as a phoenix rising. “We have an entrepreneurial feeling in Lloydminster like we’ve never had before,” she says.
Not only were there more than 100 new businesses in the city in 2021, but building relationships and focusing on retention, has connected local businesses to the resources and people that allow them to scale up, expand local distribution, and see what’s available. It solves problems for existing businesses, highlights opportunities for growth, expansion and new business, and helps the whole community by keeping dollars recirculating in the local economy.
“It goes back to the open dialogue…making sure you’re fully engaging your business community,” says Ducherer. “Every community needs to really take a look at how they’re engaging their community and what steps they’re taking to be better at that—not always having a reason to reach out but reaching out and asking if there’s anything we can do for them. Talk about pressure points and red flags in their businesses and how we can help.”